The Cartagena De Indias Neighborhood That Became "laboratory" Of Real Estate Speculation

When García Márquez inaugurated his terracotta mansion on Curato Street in 1996, the die was already cast. Most of the old movie theaters had closed and a good part of the schools had abandoned the historic center of Cartagena de Indias. The neighbors, between incredulous and expectant, watched the lurching of the boom real estate that the declaration of patrimony of the humanity had spurred in 1984. And with it, the transformation of the walled enclosure in a tourist mark far removed from that popular environment, partly demolished, where it was still possible to see people leaning out of the balconies.

“Look, the time has come to leave the center,” the architect Germán Bustamante said emphatically to his sister in 2018. At 73, he says that he had tolerated enough the “degradation of the environment”, the noise of the bars, the din diary of the fireworks of any party and, above all, the neglect of the authorities to preserve the “quality of life of the inhabitants.” In 15 years the resident population was reduced by 80%, according to official figures. By 2018 there were just over 2,300 residents left, of the almost 10,500 that were registered in 2005.

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This is how Bustamante had to leave what had been his home since 1966, when financial problems forced the family to move to a “less prestigious” place. The development of gentrification, an Anglicism that defines the process of urban substitution and expulsion of local populations by neighbors with greater purchasing power, has been relentless in Cartagena.

Getsemaní, a neighborhood with a working-class roots and a black population, is the last laboratory of real estate speculation in the center. Its low-key one-story houses, which recently housed a red light district, are occupied by guests from tourist platforms and martini bars. The value of the square meter, the highest in the country, ranges between 2,000 and 4,000 euros, values ​​comparable to those of districts such as Latina or Retiro in Madrid.

The neighborhood leader Florencio Ferrer says that the increase in rent has expelled the bulk of the Gethsemane community. He states that in Calle de la Sierpe, for example, “there are only two inhabitants left.” His effort has focused on a plan to safeguard neighborhood life, with which he has achieved exemptions in property taxes and moderate rates in public services for some 200 racial families.

Business magazine Forbes included Gethsemane among the twelve neighborhoods more cool of the world in 2018, together with Barcelona’s Sants or Amsterdam Noord, among others. The university architect Jorge Tadeo Lozano Rodrigo Arteaga recalls that, while surfing the Internet, he came across a hotell boutique that promoted an experience in the “fashionable neighborhood in Cartagena, where you can walk through the streets and see through the bars of the houses the daily life of Cartagena.” Arteaga exclaims indignantly: “Hey, we’re not a zoo!”

Mass tourism is today one of the problems that most worries, in theory, those responsible for the Institute of Urban Heritage. From various fronts they emphasize their concern to preserve “identity, social cohesion and changes in the local community.” In practice, however, the results are modest.

At the end of 2017, it became known to the media that the construction of a tower, whose construction was already on the tenth floor of 30 projected, was in an area of ​​historical heritage. To this day, the grayish skeleton of the baptized Aquarela building remains standing. Naked, altering one of the panoramic views of the San Felipe de Barajas fort, from where the Basque sailor Blas de Lezo repelled a fierce attack by the British fleet in 1714.

The authorities ordered three years ago to suspend the work. There is still no clarity on those responsible for the incident. One of the reasons is the convoluted tangle of bureaucratic circuits that watch over Cartagena’s heritage. If the walls that border part of the center and the fortress are the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture, the urban furniture of the center and its area of ​​influence are a function of the city. The disarticulation between Cartagena and Bogotá is evident. And the levity of curators and other bureaucrats lends itself to fissures.

Why did the alarms go off when ten floors have been built? Didn’t anyone in the ministry see the gigantic holes that were dug for the foundation? How was a monster of this category built on everyone’s nose? These are some of the questions posed by the Cartagena restaurateur and consultant Salim Osta Lefranc.

Unesco has urged the Government to accelerate the demolition of the Aquarela, postponing the deadline to December 1, 2022. Otherwise, it is possible that the Caribbean city will lose its world heritage label, as happened this year with the British port of Liverpool.

But the architect Rodrigo Arteaga is skeptical. The political chaos that has caused the replacement of eleven mayors in the last decade, in one of the two poorest cities in the country, complicates the picture. “Many Cartagena do not even know its historic center.” And it underlines the paradox that this supposes in a spa that receives the label of “heritage of all humanity”, says historian Orlando Deavila.

The latest incident happened a few weeks ago at the exclusive Fishing Club. The sophisticated bay of the nautical center is located in the colonial fort of San Sebastián de Pastelillo (1744), a fragment of the wall that has been administered since 1944 by its exclusive partners. The point is that those responsible decided to give him a coat of mustard paint without the authorization of the Ministry of Culture.

The problem has been rectified and a fine is expected for the club. But the institutional weakness was manifest and gave way to old questions about who are the true beneficiaries of one of the colonial architectural jewels of the Caribbean. According to research by the Cartagena economist Aarón Espinosa, it is an amalgam of transnational hotel firms, together with a network of traditional families, Cartagena and Bogota, who have benefited from national and local tax policies.

“The tax exemptions advanced by the Álvaro Uribe government favored the last phase of the hotel explosion,” explains Espinosa. “These rates, lower even than those corresponding to industry and commerce, have undoubtedly been unequal compared to local productive sectors.” He also regrets that these issues are not sufficiently publicized among Cartagena’s civil society. “Probably because they have only benefited only a few and citizen control has been insufficient.”

Isabela Restrepo is a spokesperson for the Centro Histórico Foundation, an association of 200 residents, including bankers, presidents of energy companies, Manhattan gallery owners and senior executives. Explain that the mission of the organization is to be guardians of a heritage called residential use.

She also recalls that nine years ago she left Bogotá to seek a quiet and safe environment in Cartagena, but that the recent deterioration in security as well as the proliferation of brothels and noisy bars, have led her to restrict her nightly walks. “It is very sad, but the phenomenon of tourist rental housing has allowed prostitution and micro-trafficking to grow.”

Likewise, it shelves from memory the recommendations that Unesco has issued since 2008 to avoid the destruction of the social fabric, the privatization of public spaces or the change in the residential use of buildings. The academic and resident of the center Rodrigo Arteaga, however, finds inconsistencies in the foundation’s speech.

He says that the select members, more than one absent for long periods, are an integral part of the problem. The foundation’s greatest interest is consistently focused on eliminating noise and improving safety. But deep down there is no real concern for the fate of the communities’ cultural heritage, nor for the importance of the city’s public assets, the first engine for speculation in the land market is the “patrimonialization” stimulated since 1984.

Perhaps the most unknown facet of gentrification is found inside many of the large mansions in the exclusive neighborhood of San Diego, but also in other more discreet ones in Getsemaní. The restorer Salim Osta Lefranc refers to the “fifth facade”. These are spaces where a certain spirit of measure reigned but which today, according to Rodrigo Arteaga, are places where jacuzzis, swimming pools, terraces and air conditioners allowed by law are multiplied.

For many citizens, the result is an urban setting that oscillates between a series of aristocratic venues and some touches of a theme park. It is enough to go to any of the squares where the traditional palenqueras are found, which are black hawkers that sell fruits crammed on a metal basin. These women today are dressed in costumes colored with the Colombian flag and their merchandise ending up being chili peppers or fruit buds, just to be seen. “Because what matters now is not to sell the fruit but to sell the photo with them,” says Arteaga.

Tourism has become a double-edged sword. That is why the historian Orlando Deavila argues that a public body is required to regulate and manage the practice of tourism “because what exists today is a public-private figure with no government capacity.” An entity capable of managing the great pillar of Cartagena’s economy and capable of recovering the lost soul of the old neighborhood of open hallways.

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